Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Operation Poomalai

by Dr. K Chandradeva

The 20th annniversary of Operation Poomalai (OP) falls on 4 June 2007.  The Operation Poomalai clearly  demonstrated the seriousness and solidarity of the Indian government to help the  beleguered and besieged population of Jaffna that was under brutal occupation by the Sri lankan armed forces.

Operation Poomalai (OP) was the codename assigned to a mission undertaken by the Indian Air Force (IAF) to airdrop supplies over the besieged town of Jaffna on 4 June 1987 in support and solidarity by the Indian government towards the Tamil civilians during the military offensive by the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL).

The Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) in 1987 laid siege on the town of  Jaffna, an Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) stronghold, as a part of its campaign against the Tamil bases. This resulted in large-scale civilian casualties and created a condition of humanitarian crisis. India, which has a substantial Tamil population in South India, had been aiding the Tamil factions and particularly the LTTE and called on the GOSL to halt the offensive in an attempt to negotiate a political settlement. However, the Indian efforts were futile.

Failing to negotiate an end to the crisis with Sri Lanka, India announced on 2 June 1987 that it wound send a convoy of unarmed ships to northern Sri Lanka to provide humanitarian assistance, but the ships were intercepted by the Sri Lankan Navy and turned back. The sending back of the Flotilla was seen as a great victory by the general populace of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, and it was greeted with Jubilation and 'Victory' celebrations. It was quite clear that the Indian government was not going to take this lying down. Plans were afoot for another drastic measure.

Following the failure of the naval mission, the decision was made to make a show of force to the GOSL, a symbolic support to the Tamils, to preserve the credibility of  the Indian government. The decision was to carry out an airdrop of humanitarian supplies, designated Operation Poomalai (Tamil: Garland of flowers).

OP was mounted on the evening of 4 June 1987. The operation involved five An-32s of the Paratroop Training School in  Agra, escorted by five Mirage 2000s of the No.7 Squadron. On the morning of 3 June,  7 squadron was directed to send a five-ship detachment to Bangalore airport, where they were redirected to Yelahanka airbase north of the city. At the same time, under the supervision of the (then) Vice-Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal S Raghavendran, five An-32s were loaded with the relief supplies and these took off for Bangalore at 0800 hours. These were to fly out, led by Gp Capt BK Sunder - commanding officer of Paratroop Training School, after light and carry out the supply drop under the cover of the Mirages, which were led by Wg Cdr Ajit Bhavnani -  commanding officer of No. 7 Squadron. A group of thirty-five journalists - national and international - were also included on the flight. The Mirages were armed with two Matra Magic 11 AAMs as a measure against any opposition by the Sri Lankan Air Force, and also carried three drop tanks.

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Picture right: An-32s of the Indian Air Force taxiing for take off from Bangalore during Operation Poomalai. Picture middle: Mirage 2000H-123 on the escort mission during Operation Poomalai. Pictyre left: Relief supplies drifting towards Jaffna. Pictures courtesy of Polly Singh & India Today.

The Sri Lankan High Commissioner to New Delhi was summoned to the Ministry of External Affairs at 1500 Hours, where the message was conveyed by Minister of External Affairs Natwar Singh that Indian Air Force would be flying a mission at 1600 Hours to drop supplies over Jaffna. The High Commissioner was told that the aircraft were expected to complete their mission unhindered and any opposition by the Sri Lankan Air Force 'would be met by force' by the escorting Mirage 2000s.

The first of the flights left Bangalore at 15:55 hours and flew towards the Coramandel coast, where they were met with four Mirage escorts. One Mirage stayed back acting as radio relay, along with two additional An-32s over Tamil Nadu, which acted as radio relay to Bangalore. The flight leader attempted radio contact with Colombo Air Traffic Control over the civilian air traffic radio channel at 16:47 hours, but was unable to establish contact. The mission approached Jaffna peninsula at about 16:50 hours and sighted Jaffna Town itself at 17:00 hours. The aircraft descended from 12000 feet to about 1500 feet and carried out the drop at the drop zone about 7km from the town of Jaffna. The aircraft then turned in a western direction, flying over Palaly airbase before turning north, heading for the Indian coast. The mission arrived back over Bangalore at 18:13 hours, where they were greeted with much jubilation.

In the wake of OP, Sri Lanka accused India of violating its sovereignty. However, India defended its actions as a mercy mission in aid of what were termed as the deteriorating conditions of the civilian population, refusing at the time to rule out further missions.

Within India, the actions were endorsed across the political diaspora. In India, it was seen at the time as an act of support against the beleaguered and besieged Tamil population of the north. At that time, Colombo deemed it a blatant show of support for the Tamil Tigers. The total supply air dropped by India during the operation amounted to a little over 25 tons, and this was clearly not sufficient to sustain a besieged city.

Faced with the possibility of an active Indian intervention, the President, J R Jayawardene, offered to hold talks with the Rajiv Ghandhi government on future moves. The siege of Jaffna was soon lifted, followed by a round of negotiations that led to the signing of the  Indo-Sri Lankan Accord (ISA) on July 29, 1987. The terms of the truce specified that the Sri Lankan troops withdraw from the north and the Tamil rebels disarm, and saw the induction of the Indian Armed Forces as a peace-keeping force in Sri Lanka.

This accord was accepted by all Tamil political parties and Tamil  militant groups and hailed by the international community as a major breakthrough in solving the protracted bloody conflict in the island of Sri Lanka. However the LTTE – the only Tamil group – went against the ISA merely two months after accepting it. Prior to OP, only 500 Tamil militants had been martyred, but 20 years on over 25,000 young Tamil men and women in their tender age have sacrificed their lives in this bloody conflict. Between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians have been killed.   Deaths, destruction, destution, disappearances and despair continue unabated in our homeland.